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When Jobim Sang Off Key in Japan

You sit in your seat at the Hibiya Concert Hall, an outside venue in the style of a Roman amphitheater with its rows of seats that curve in a semi-circle around the stage. A man dressed in a white suit sits at the piano. He looks to be in his late 60s, and there’s a tired look in his eyes behind the round frame of his glasses as he prepares himself for the next number.

And then he starts, that melody that you know so well, the one that you have hummed to yourself over and over again when you first heard it. Behind him, the drummer gently brushes the snare drums to set the even notes. Antonio Carlos Jobim begins to sing of love and of poets.

In jazz clubs or jazz kissa (short for jazz kissaten which translates into jazz ‘cafeterias’) all over Tokyo, from the Pit Inn of Shinjuku, one of the oldest, to JBS in Shibuya, a monument to the former-world of vinyl, Jobim’s Desafinado was the definitive jazz standard for cool in the 1950s. In English, the song's title means "off key" or "out of tune." The grooves on the track of the classic LP album Getz/Gilberto a little worse off for wear from the needle of the turntable; the inspiring jazz musicians improvising with the melody in their sessions, adopting it as their own as did the Japanese songwriter Tadashi Yabe for his group UFO.

But here he is, the song’s creator, right there on stage for the first time ever in Japan to perform it in the middle of Tokyo, within the lusciousness of Hibiya Park, the oldest one in Japan, with its cherry blossom trees and ponds scattered throughout in contrast to the development around it.

As you look around the concert hall, modern glass buildings surround you as if growing from behind the row of dogwoods itself. Over your right shoulder, a 25-storey building houses the Ministry of Health, buzzing with employees thinking no doubt of Japan’s aging population. Behind that is the Emperor’s palace, surrounded by its own moat.

But as you look back onto the stage, you try to put everything out of your mind. Jobim plays the piano, accompanied by the flutist and five female singers who sing the song in the original Portuguese. Jobim misses his cue and his last few notes are off-key. It’s perfect.

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